Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Autonomy, Unschooling, trust, critical thinking and ranting teenagers

Take this as fair warning - this post may well turn into a wee bit of a rant. 

If you are on many home ed Facebook groups then I doubt that you can have missed the Daily Mail article about unschooling that has just been published.

It's not a bad article, in the main, but the concept of unschooling is never going to be an easy one to convey to a hostile journalist.  I felt that, really, if you already know about unschooling then the article reaffirms it as a good choice, if you don't like the idea or have never heard of unschooling it looks like lazy or neglectful parenting and no brief piece of writing can really fix that.

The unschooling approach is, after all, basically, counter to all we are told by the mainstream of society. 

For most people children are viewed as a canvas for their parents and school to paint on.  From the time babies are born we are told they need to be "trained" - how many of us have been told that unless we start sleep training, feeding on a schedule, imposing OUR will then the little ones will be running the show?  We have shelves full of baby training and toddler taming manuals, and the whole of a child's life - if the "normal" route is followed - is run by others, for the convenience of others, and those others are *always* the adults.

Unschooling, on the other hand, is about trust.  Trusting a child to find their way, and supporting them as they grow.  In the UK I think the terms "Autonomous learning" and "Unschooling" are almost interchangeable.  The idea is that learning is best done when a child is intrinsically motivated, not manipulated or cajoled, and from my experience that seems to be true.

Where autonomy and unschooling diverge is that a child may autonomously choose to do "schooly" things - like workbooks - but I don't think that would happen in an Unschooling household.

Now, in our house we have learnt in many different ways - we have times when we are very bookish, and A in particular loves workbooks, and other times where we are very autonomous.  I am unconvinced that unschooling could work for several of our children - M is very keen to avoid challenging himself, possibly due to his high anxiety levels, and L found reading so hard work due to his dyslexia I don't know if he would have persevered without encouragement - but J has shown me that it works well for him - he has so much mathematical knowledge that hasn't come from the work we have done together, and he often asks about things at random times and shows me he is thinking about a lot more than I realise.  So I think this is a case of different strokes for different folks, and on the whole I trust parents to do their best for their children.

But to get back to the article, in many ways it annoyed me - but more than anything else the quotes from "experts" rankled.

To start with, the two experts quoted - Dr Kevin Stannard, of the Girls’ Day School Trust and Julia Harrington, headmistress of Queen Anne's School in Caversham - are clearly what would be termed "hostile witnesses". They are both representatives of school based education, and as such the system they are "experts" on is based on a huge lack of trust - both of parents and of their children. Within the school system the voice of parents is ignored, and the idea of allowing a child to choose what they learn is anathema.  If these two "experts" had given positive reactions, they would have been acknowledging that the school system is not the only way, and ultimately their livelihoods depend on parents not thinking too hard about whether school works or not.  It is rather like asking a butcher or a pig farmer if (s)he thinks vegetarianism is a good idea . . .

Dr Stannard said (amongst other things)
"Part of a rounded education, for example, is the ability to develop ‘critical thinking’ and to question assumptions you have grown up with, which can only truly happen outside of the home environment."

This I *really* take issue with.  I think it goes straight back to this whole idea that society seems to have, that as a parent my job is to mould my children like lumps of clay - turn them into just what society wants and nothing else.  In our house this couldn't be further from the truth!  From the outset I have encouraged my children to think about things - I don't want blind obedience from them, because I know I am fallible and may not have thought about something that occurs to them.  When my children are asked to do something, if they refuse and explain why we talk it through (unless it's an urgent thing and there just isn't time.) I don't always agree with their point of view, but I do try to listen to it and think about it.  We do a lot of learning by talking - probably because that is the way L learns best - so we often talk about an idea and discuss each others opinions of things.

In none of the children is this more evident than L - my very own ranting teen :) - For example whereas I go to Church, he is a staunch atheist.  We have talked through both my beliefs and those of other religions - with no intention of convincing or converting him - and both of us understand the others point of view, and respect our differences.  L has a lot of strong views on things - from the conflicts in Syria, Egypt and Palestine / Israel - to space exploration, medical science, poverty and politics.  Not all of his views are logical, most of them are very different to my views, or those of his father, some are very emotional responses to news reports, others rather ill-informed knee jerk reactions to headlines, but we talk them through, I point him towards more information if he needs it, and quite often he does the same for me.

He may be only 14 (and a big bit) but he is very capable of critical thought and discussion, without ever having been to school . . .

Dr Stannard also said
'It is also much easier to learn skills like ‘collaboration’ when you are actually working alongside a group of classmates each day.'

Which gives lie to his impression of home education, or unschooling, as a solitary pursuit.  So many of the people invited to comment on the lives of home educators have no idea that there is a community out there waiting.  Fully formed, welcoming, and actively socialising.  Collaboration comes when you have a group of people working towards a common goal - and that is easy to do when you move outside the prescriptive, restrictive cage of school and into the wide expanse of freedom in the real world.  If Dr Stannard has no idea how home educated children socialise then how can his views on any other aspect of home education be trusted?

The other "expert" Julia Harrington, a Headmistress, said
'Research shows that a teenager’s brain demands interaction with other teenagers and will seek it out if it is not there.  In the age of information overload, young people need to know how to filter and show discernment in their processing of information, and it is very difficult to develop this sort of mind-set in a vacuum.'

Again showing the same misunderstanding.  Home education of any sort does not mean social isolation, or growing up in a vacuum!

I wish that the journalist had sought out some experts on education as a whole, not just teachers - someone from the Institute of Education, or one of the various researchers that have published work comparing family based education and school based education, or even some of the hundreds of former teachers who now home educate their own children . . .


  1. Totally agree with your thoughts about the "experts", they really do not have a clue! I really enjoy your blog too. I am new to HE and just learning about unschooling, which I have to admit, I struggle with.

  2. Unschooling can be hard to get your head around, mostly because it's just so different an approach. Give it time though - I think most home educators have a steep learning curve, and the longer you home educate the more relaxed you will be, because your child(ren) will show you just how easily they learn when they are interested and making their own choices.
    Enjoy the ride :)

  3. Thanks for writing this. I've found that unschooling works best for my sons who are 6 and 9. But it does take balls!

  4. You are right Jo- it really takes balls to stick with something that others around you just don't get. Worth it though :)